By Josh Leach on June 14, 2019
More loudly than ever, people are speaking out against the abhorrent practice of detaining children in U.S. custody. More than 100,000 individuals signed a petition to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), calling on them to stop holding kids in detention. Art installations have appeared in New York City urging passers-by to confront the ongoing nightmare of family separation and child detention in the United States.
A youth-led action initiated by the UU Congregation of Columbia, Maryland — cosponsored by UUSC and others — lined the National Mall with thousands of pairs of children’s pajamas. This event, dubbed Where Are the Children?, served as a powerful visual reminder of the more than 2,000 children currently locked up at the Homestead detention center in Florida.
As part of the Week of Action to End Migrant Child Detention, UUSC supporters around the country have pulled together to advance these efforts. Thousands of UUSC members signed the petition to HHS. UUSC staff came to Washington D.C. this week to support our allies at Where are the Children? Led by the American Friends Service Committee and others, we also marched to HHS headquarters to deliver the petition signatures in person.
In spite of these clear messages from the public, however, news this week shows the Trump administration is doubling down on its practice of detaining kids. On June 7, HHS announced plans to open three new facilities to hold as many as 4,000 unaccompanied children. Two of these facilities would be housed on U.S. military bases and managed by HHS. The third, expected to open in Carrizo Springs, Texas, would be run by a for-profit private contractor — just like the current so-called “emergency influx” facility in Homestead.
These practices are not only immoral; they are against the law. Under binding U.S. legal agreements, no one is allowed to hold migrant children in prison-like facilities — let alone to profit from doing so. A federal consent decree known as the “Flores Settlement” requires HHS to make continuous efforts to transfer custody of children to their relatives and other adult sponsors, or — when this is not possible — to place them in open, non-prison-like facilities (known technically as “non-secure” facilities) that are licensed to care for children.
Nevertheless, detention centers used to warehouse children are expanding. Why?
The administration has tried to sidestep the clear legal requirements of Flores by declaring that its facilities are built to respond to a “temporary emergency influx” of unaccompanied children. According to HHS, this means they are exempt from licensing requirements and other child-care standards. Conditions at these facilities continue to deteriorate as a result, with HHS announcing on June 5 that it now plans to cut off all funding for educational, legal service, and recreational programs at the facilities.
Despite labeling these facilities “temporary,” HHS is making little effort to guarantee children’s right to a prompt release or to care in a licensed, non-secure facility. Recent court filings from civil rights groups challenging the Homestead facility report seeing no evidence that HHS is promptly transferring children to licensed, non-secure facilities when space is available. Moreover, the administration’s policies directly interfere with children’s ability to be released to sponsors.
One such policy states that HHS will share identifying information with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for all potential sponsors of children, as well as every adult member of the sponsor’s household. This information has repeatedly been used to arrest and deport undocumented relatives of unaccompanied children who come forward to volunteer, intimidating other potential sponsors and blocking children from being released to adult caregivers.
This information-sharing agreement remains in force to this day, in spite of both the Flores Settlement and explicit language in a recent appropriations bill recently passed by Congress, which forbids DHS from using funds to arrest and deport potential sponsors on the basis of HHS data.
In all of these ways, the government’s practices suggest a willful disregard both of U.S. law and the moral voice of the public. The march to HHS headquarters on June 12 ended in a disturbing way that underlined this fact. When a number of advocates requested to enter the HHS building in order to deliver the petition signatures, guards blocked them at the door and told them no one on staff would meet them to receive the petition. After asking if they could at least leave the petition cover letter with someone at HHS, they were told to place it on the ground in front of the building, where it remained until we left.
Refusing to look at the signatures of more than 100,000 members of the U.S. public only confirms this government’s callous approach to the consequences of its own policies. While UUSC supporters and allies have made a strong statement in opposition to child detention, this campaign clearly needs to carry on. On June 16, UUSC staff and supporters will be in Homestead, Florida to continue to push for the closure of the facility.
Meanwhile, hopes turn to Congress to show moral leadership. We are calling on our legislators to do all in their power to guarantee children’s right to safety and freedom. Help us continue to lift this message throughout the Week of Action and beyond.
Photo Credit – UUSC
About UUSC: Guided by the belief that all people have inherent worth and dignity, UUSC advances human rights globally by partnering with affected communities who are confronting injustice, mobilizing to challenge oppressive systems, and inspiring and sustaining spiritually grounded activism for justice. We invite you to join us in this journey toward realizing a better future!